The bright yellow neon sign in front of St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church at King and Simcoe in downtown Toronto drew my attention as I left Roy Thomson Hall after the Vivaldi concert a couple of weeks ago. It cycled through several messages: “A Christmas Carol Read by Tenor Ben Heppner and other GREAT voices,” and then, “An Evening of Readings, Carols & Gingerbread, Sat, Nov 30 at 7 p.m.,” and finally, “FREE Admission, Give generously to our Refugee Program.” I thought that this would be a wonderful way to start the holiday season. And so it was.
I took my new favourite TTC route downtown, using the Bathurst streetcar southbound to the marvellous King streetcar, which runs constantly without any waiting. The dark wooden balconies of the beautiful old church were bedecked with evergreen boughs and bright red bows. A large Christmas tree covered in white lights stood at the front, as white candles lit the floor below the podium. I was greeted by a lovely usher wearing the yellow T-shirt of the Refugee Sponsorship Program (STARS), a long scarf in seasonal colours and a Christmas bow in her hair. A brass quintet and a pianist on the grand piano played Christmas music as we waited for the program to begin. At the conclusion, we all went to the Great Hall for a Gingerbread and Cider Reception.
The Dickens story was divided into five staves, stave being another word for chapter, and also for staff in musical scores. The internet dictionary indicates that Dickens used the term “because each individual stave is a stand-alone story with its own distinctive mood. When taken together, all five staves combine to form a harmonious whole… as if the book is a Christmas carol, and each chapter is part of the song.”
Ben Heppner, who retired from professional opera five years ago and still hosts “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage with Ben Heppner” on CBC Radio, began the readings. He was followed by Patricia Garnett-Smith, a British actress who came to Canada in l954 and has appeared in numerous theatre productions, films and commercials. Then came Kwagiulth and Stó:lo First Nations mezzo-soprano, Marion Newman, who has sung numerous roles including the lead in the world premiere of the First Nations opera “Giiwedin.” Canadian soprano Neema Bickersteth, who was raised in Alberta by parents from Sierra Leone, continued the story. She specializes in contemporary opera and musical theatre, is a Dora Mavor Moore award winner, and is slated to play the title character in Scott Joplin’s reinterpretation of “Treemonisha,” one of the world’s first Black operas. Rick Phillips concluded the readings. He is the producer of SOUND ADVICE, a guide to classical music and recordings heard weekly on CBC Radio One and Radio Two, author of “The Essential Classical Recordings—101 CDs,” and a well-known lecturer, consultant, and musical tour guide. Needless to say, the readings were stellar. Between each stave, the audience joined in singing Christmas carols accompanied by the glorious organ.
The event was a fundraiser for the St. Andrews Refugee Sponsorship program which has brought two Syrian Kurdish families to Canada: Gulistan and Abdulrazzak Abdo and their four children from Aleppo, Syria in 2016 and, in 2019, their relatives Abdulrahman, Amina and Roushin who were then living as refugees in Turkey. The extended family now live on different floors of the same apartment building, and are busy integrating into Canadian life. They have signed up for ESL and other courses, the children are in school and daycare, the older ones have gone to summer camp. The family gives back by helping with the coffee hour after church and volunteering in the Out of the Cold program. The success of this sponsorship has encouraged STARS to raise funds to sponsor another family. Learning the details of what these families and STARS have experienced encouraged me to think again about what I can do to help in the effort. The need remains as desperate as ever.
For me, the Christmas season is well underway.
The hot tub located in the women’s locker room of the West End College Street YMCA in Toronto is one of the highlights of the Y experience. (The men have a hot tub, too, but I know nothing of what happens there.) Unlike some Ys, where access to the hot tub is limited to members who pay a premium, the West End Y hot tub is open to everyone. Many love the warm luxury of the hot water and the “water therapy” provided by the jets. Together with the steam room, sauna and showers, the swimming pool, sports facilities, and the Zen deck on the roof, it provides “the ultimate spa experience” for those who like to treat it as such, even for a day.
The current hot tub is a pool clad with white tiles, up three stairs from the showers, sauna, and steam room. These stairs make the hot tub inaccessible to those in wheelchairs, hardly conducive to the Y’s commitment to physical accessibility. How this was missed during a relatively recent renovation escapes me, but it was. Putting that aside….
The tub holds a maximum of eight people at a time, sitting on underwater tile-clad benches, with jets on two sides. Sometimes when I use the hot tub, I have the hot tub to myself. Other times it is full. Each time, I wonder what my hot tub experience will bring that day. Consistent with the prevailing etiquette, sometimes all the bathers like to talk. Other times, it is apparent that some individuals want quiet time and it is best not to clutter their serenity with chatter.
I have met the most interesting people in the hot tub. One day, I was the sole fluent anglophone among four Portuguese women of a certain age, all talking to each other in Portuguese. I discovered that they had immigrated to Canada thirty or forty years ago and worked as cleaning ladies. They were talking about their summer vacations “back home.” All had second and even third homes in Portugal, near their families, which were opened up and aired out every summer in anticipation of their arrival. They all had at least one luxury car, a Mercedes, or an Audi, or a BMW, which they kept in Portugal for their use. I loved the fact that these modest immigrant women were so successful and that Canada had given them the means to be so.
Another time, I shared the pool with a trio of much younger women from Vietnam. In faltering English, they described how they came to Canada recently and, having learned about the Y from their friends, came to “use the spa.” Two had lived in Cambodia during the Vietnamese war; the third came from Ho Chi Minh City. Another Vietnamese woman told me that she worked long hours as a nurse and, although not a Y member, she spent her days off at this Y as a guest, because of the spa. When I admired the very distinctive flowered green bathing suit worn by yet another woman, also from Viet Nam, she told me that she had made it herself. She was the very first person I have ever met who made her own bathing suit.
The hot tub has become a font of invaluable information which consistently improves my life. A woman who was a writer told me about a legal book she published which was available as part of a series for young people from the Toronto Public Library. Although I have been very active in public legal education during my career, I did not know about the series and went to borrow her book right away. She also told me about a book store on Bathurst near Bloor which I did not know existed.
Just last week, I met a woman from Porto, in Portugal, who sews for a living from her studio on Vaughan Road. Among her clients is Malabar, Toronto’s pre-eminent costume emporium on McCaul Street. I figured that anyone who works for Malabar must be good. I told her about the sewing I needed to have done and she invited me to visit her studio. I gathered up some old jackets and dresses which have languished unworn for years and brought them to her. She pinned everything carefully and suggested several design remakes which were simple but which updated the outfits dramatically. I think I have finally found a fashion designer/seamstress/tailor who is more than a worthy successor to my beloved Frank the Tailor, who retired several years ago. (See my post about Frank, here.) After spending two hours with Naty, I went home and wrote this post on the YMCA Hot Tub which I have wanted to do for years.
Like traditional “waters” and community wells of old, the hot tub is the locus of the best that that Y has to offer. Where else could I meet such a variety of people and, by asking just a few questions, learn their stories, and become their friend or at least their acquaintance? It’s a marvellous means for cross-cultural interaction. By its mere existence, it reflects and builds the community of which it is a part.
How do you see yourself at 96 years of age? On Monday, my sister and I visited an old family friend who is truly aged, has many medical issues, and needs full-time caregiving support. She now lives with her daughter and son-in-law in their expansive Markham home which accommodates her walker, has a stair-lift climbing the staircase to the second floor bedrooms and, on the main floor, a kitchen table looking out to a backyard busy with birds at the feeder, bushy black squirrels and even the occasional fox.
When we arrive, Ethel is in the family room watching the Olympics on the television. She rises to greet us. Her freshly made up face lit up with a radiant smile, her white hair immaculately coiffed, and wearing a stylish black checked jacket, she looks twenty years younger than her age. Before long, she opened up a plastic bag and gave us each a soft, hand-crafted woollen toque, navy blue with a white pompom, which she had made for us. We were thrilled.
Ethel has been making toques for about ten years. She saw a woman at Eglinton Square in Scarborough working on a round plastic frame called The Quickie Loom. Intrigued, she bought one right away and took it home to show her husband, Vic. Before long, they had two frames, one for toques and one for scarves, which both made for family and friends. One year they made forty toques and gave them to a church which distributed them to street people. So far this year, Ethel has made more than a dozen, two for us and the others which also have been collected and given to people in need.
When we asked, she was eager to show us how she makes the toques. The trick is using an inexpensive frame called The Quickie Loom which can be bought at a craft shop such as Michaels or even Walmart. She uses Bernat Roving acrylic and wool (hat weight), which she also buys at Walmart.
Several videos on YouTube provide simple instructions for what is called loom knitting. Ethel begins with a slip knot placed on an anchor peg on the plastic frame. She wraps the strand of wool around each peg on the frame to make one row of loops, and then continues the same thing to create a second row. Once she has laid down two rows, she uses a pick to hook the bottom strand over the one above. She repeats the process of hooping and hooking, two rows at a time, until she has completed sixty rows for a large size toque and forty rows for a medium. As she loops and hooks the wool on the frame, the toque forms itself.
It’s easy. She can make one in an evening while she is watching television. And she didn’t have to be a knitter.
Looms come in many sizes with increasing numbers of pegs to make toques and scarves for dolls, babies, toddlers, and adults. There are YouTube instructions for making different types of hats; unisex slouchy beanies, pussy-hats, a rib-stitch hat, and also scarves. There are instructions for changing colours, making pompoms, and adding a flower to the hat. For the toques she made for Kath and I, Ethel added white pompoms. Making those pompoms for the first time required the ingenuity of all three adults in the household, but now she has the hang of it.
Loom knitting hats is easy for children. Ethel told me that when her pastor’s young daughter was diagnosed with cancer, Ethel gave a Quickie Loom and some wool to both her and her sister, to make hats for themselves. She told them that when they showed her the hats they’d made, she would give each of them $5.00. Two days later, on Sunday morning, they met her at church with big grins on their faces, and their finished hats on their heads. Ethel was delighted to depart with the $10.00. The girls went on to make dozens of hats for their friends and for the church.
Happy Valentine’s Day, everyone.
***** Photos with thanks to Keith Carbert *****
For thirty-two years, the self-styled Daughters of Hoyle, also known as The Sisters of Precious Little, have been getting together. Usually for a weekend in early November, it is a highlight of our year. In the past, we have come from Ottawa, Kingston and Toronto to a rented cottage where we can enjoy the autumn colours, somewhere in Prince Edward County, on Amherst Island, on Rice Lake, or in the Rideau river system of eastern Ontario. Once we met at Mary Ann’s home in Kingston; another time at Janne’s cottage near Minden. Two years ago, we ventured further afield, for four days in New York City. This year, we’ve spent five days at my “cottage” in Vancouver.
Three who met as “mature students” at Queen’s U. law school added me, the fourth, from Osgoode. We are all under or near five feet tall (except for Janne, a.k.a. “Stretch”) and we sport navy blue shirts emblazoned with “Daughters of Hoyle” in red print on the back. When we walk the streets together, we sometimes attract questions.
Mary Ann is a dedicated activist who fills us in on current causes. Knowledgeable about music and skilled at modern technology, she chooses the playlist which sets the ambiance. Peggy, who spends three months each year in Costa Rica and the rest visiting her large family around the country, putters in the kitchen. She makes sure that everything in the refrigerator finds its way into one meal or another. Janne, the artist, scouts out the latest exhibition or craft show we must see at the galleries. This year, I have luxuriated in the fact that my eastern friends are visiting in Vancouver when the sun is shining by day, there is a full moon by night, and a fresh fall of new snow on the North Shore mountains.
So what do we do? Each year, we pick up where we left off the last, as if we have never been apart. We talk, and talk, and talk, about all the things going on in our lives. We’ve been together through illness, death, family break-up and divorce, the care of children and of aging parents. We talk about the idiosyncrasies of the profession, politics, books and movies, our friends and families, our hopes and dreams. We drink lots of wine, although we are switching to water with various additives as we age. Mary Ann lays out a tray of fancy cheeses, spicy spreads, patés, prosciutto, smoked oysters, and crackers for snacks. This year, we’ve fed on chicken and salmon dishes prepared by Janne, Peggy, and me, and have felt absolutely no desire to eat out. Peggy’s Eggys with spinach, avocado, and prosciutto are the best Eggs Benedicts around. In New York, we ordered in and shared Thai fare with the night staff at the tables on the ground floor of our little Hell’s Kitchen hotel. They said that this was their first experience of Thai food.
We listen to music, walk the local paths, and see the sights. If there is a church bazaar around, a bake sale or a craft fair, we will find it, and shop for treasures. In rural Ontario, our Saturday lunch is often a traditional pre-Christmas tea in a church basement, the tiny sandwiches and familiar sweets a nostalgic reminder of times past. In Wakefield, Ontario, we once caught their traditional pie auction and, after tasting the samples included with admission, we left with a winning pie. In New York, we walked the High Line in bright sunlight, had lunch at the Chelsea Market, and, after seeing the wonderful play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, stood at the stage door, to meet the actors. This year, we caught a show of portraits from the Queen’s collection at the Vancouver Art Gallery and, on Saturday, hit the bustling Flea Market at West Vancouver United Church, and the craft fair at the community centre across the street.
Once dinner is done, we settle into playing cards. I come from a birth family where playing cards was a favourite pastime. In my eastern life, I never play cards except with the Daughters of Hoyle. On my first weekend away with them, when we were sole occupants of an historic cottage at Isaiah Tubbs resort in Prince Edward Country, Mary Ann set up an easel to help teach me the proper names of the suits of cards. If I was going to play bugger bridge, I couldn’t bid calling one suit “broccolis” and another “shovels.” The next day that same weekend, we played cards on the rocks of Sandbanks beach in the hot November sun, a memory we often recall. This year Peggy brought along the “Five Crowns,” a five-suited variation on rummy. No matter what game we play, or how hard we play it, Janne always seems to win. Playing cards is good for serious strategic planning, acting out latent aggressions, and hearty laughs which sometimes leave us in tears.
At the end of our time together, we set the date for the next year and talk about suitable venues. Long may the Daughters of Hoyle continue to meet.